- Progress Narratives, Racism, and Level Playing Fields: Recent Academic Literature on Sports1
Sports are ubiquitous in American society; their economic reach and cultural influence is pervasive. If one were to use annual revenues as the measure, as Fortune does in its yearly list of the nation’s largest corporations, then in 2010 the National Football League would be around the top 250, Major League Baseball would be near the top 350, and the National Basketball Association would be just outside the top 500, had all their teams not been incorporated separately. Sports have always been entitled to a staggering share of American media, regardless of which medium has dominated. Sports are introduced to children whose becoming players and consumers at an early age is an essential aspect of their development. What does the prevalence of sports say about American society?
Sports provide a unique canvas for people to paint their version of an ideal America, since their meaning comes from the preservation of a level playing [End Page 185] field that guarantees fairness, rewards merit, and yields just results. Sports are metaphorically ripe for comparison to America at its finest, and much of their cultural influence comes from the making of such meaning. Direct appeals to patriotism that might seem inappropriate elsewhere—consider that the national anthem is not played during your average movie preview—are encouraged within the sports world. Aggressive federal intervention into baseball’s steroids scandal suggests the significance of the level playing field and the sense of outrage that accompanies its violation.
Race has played a central role in our understanding of sports and the level playing field. Racial inequalities run counter to America’s grandest ideals, yet sports are where African American success has become a key aspect of the landscape. Ideologically, black success in sports can stand in for the real thing, as a counterpoint to the racial inequalities that are an outrageous violation of American society’s supposed level playing field. Narratives that position sports as a proving ground for our national moral authority, with race at their center, reflect this patriotic and rhetorically progressive bent. Think of how the Jackie Robinson story is often told as one in which progressive elements win out over prejudice and racism.
It is quite common for writers, including those whose books are reviewed herein, to boil down sports to either a positive or negative force. Sports as good and sports as bad are predominant themes. Race is one of the key criteria used to carry this assessment, thus another version of the sports as good/sports as bad paradigm might be called the sports as racially progressive/sports as racist dichotomy. The theses of the four books reviewed are all gradations of these scales. Abrams and Cunningham present sports as a utopian site where the level playing field rules. Goudsouzian believes that sports have an ambiguous effect, paradoxically facilitating both the breakage and reinforcement of the color barrier. Early positions sports as a clearinghouse for racism. The major limitation of these lines of inquiry is that they do not produce any material understanding of how society works, but instead ultimately rely on the authors’ value judgments to determine the meaning of sports.
The dynamic described in Sports Justice between sports and the judicial system is a cause-and-effect one; whenever market forces corrupt the purity of sports, the courts will intervene to restore it. In the Abrams model, both sports and courts are level playing fields protected by rules. He writes, “This is a book about rules: the rules of the game, which ensure a level playing field within sports, and the rules of law which apply to the business of sports” (vii...